“Never snap to guides, we want your mind, not your software" - David Carson

Today I will introduce one of the most divisive designers in history, David Carson. He has been imitated and revered by an international audience of young creatives, making generations fall in love with his alternative approach to art direction.

Self-taught, resolutely grid-free, and unafraid to speak his mind (see AIGA), David Carson made designers realize that there was no need for rules about image placement, consistent typography and stubborn copy flow, by provocatively forcing designers to free their minds when it happens to create.


To this day, he is regarded as the father of grunge typography, a style of design characterized by the use of textures, collages, overlapping photographs and broken typographic layouts that do not take readability into account.


David Carson page layout and graphic design for the Factory magazine in London, 2013


Poster for the Portuguese Film Festival | Roadshow, 2013

Carson has traveled the world with his family since childhood, while storing images and experiences, until he entered the world of graphic design at the age of 27, firstly working for surf and skate magazines such as Transworld Skateboarding and Surfer. Then he achieved international fame in the 1990s when he became the art director of Ray Gun magazine (1992-1995), a well-known youth fashion magazine, where he proposed an innovative and experimental use of graphics and the massive use of typefaces as pure graphic elements, which gained him international fame.


David Carson cover of Transworld Skateboarding magazine, 1988


David Carson cover of May 1994 issue 16 - RayGun magazine

Trust your gut. Even the famous corporate logo designer Paul Rand once said, “It’s all intuition”, and if you don’t have it, I’m pretty sure it can’t be taught.

David Carson

His aesthetic straddles the line between ordered and chaotic. Indeed, Carson finds the pursuit of perfection boring and uncreative.

His entire approach is based on intuition and sensitivity.

Unlike the master of the grid and compositional order, Massimo Vignelli (who is the subject of a dedicated chapter in "Instruments for Designers", on ADF), Carson invites creatives to be attracted by everything that surrounds us and to have fun reworking it within the project, by communicating messages strongly and irregularly.

His selected media range from material collage to "raw and dirty" photography, as he defines it, in the canon of what is nowadays called mixed media.

There are no glossy effects, the appeal and glamour come directly from the story that the construction of the images conveys itself.


RayGun, October 1994 issue
From: Letterform Archive on X

Typography is also one of his most expressive media, an instrument of compositional rebellion and the actual element that breaks through the two-dimensionality of paper.

In this regard, is worth mentioning his most topical production as creative director, Carson’s 1994 iconic interview with Brian Ferry in RayGun, which uses Zapf Dingbats, a particular font containing just symbols and no letters: "the right font for a boring interview", he later declared.


Interview to Brian Ferry, RayGun, 1994
From : Medium

Flicking through one of Carson's magazines would have been, and may continue to be, a similar experience to browsing the web, with many open windows, text and juxtaposed images, many browsers, written notes and syncopated compositional rhythms.

This style reverberates also on his own website, a kind of a Craigslist spiced up with different font sizes and an exquisite nostalgic 90s style.


Copy + design for Emporio Armani watches

Even though he has had the most creative freedom working with the street culture, through magazines and publishing, he still has an enviable client portfolio: Emporio Armani, Microsoft, Nike, Pepsi, Samsung, Desigual and many more.


Logo for the Dali Museum in Petersburg, Florida


Go Free potato chips packaging from JimmyAsh LLC in Bakersfield, California, 2017

Graphic Design USA included him in their all-time hall of fame, along with Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Massimo Vignelli, while Apple awarded him as one of Apple computers “30 most innovative users” in their 30-year history.

Carsons’ works recall the Basquiat lesson, the artist who succeeded in bringing art from the street to art galleries. Carson's style is sharp, playful, chaotic and instinctive in a similar way to the great exponent of American neo-expressionism and graffiti art, which is used as a powerful weapon to communicate.


Poster for the Kill The Fin Trade, a brief presented at the Semi Permanent with Sea Shepherd themed 'Design For Change' against the shark fin trade in Sydney, Australia.

David Carson made an enormous contribution to graphic design and design awareness beyond typography only. His figure is divisive, a man who had broken rules and conventions, but at the same time instructive about a healthy revolution that designers may or may not embrace.

I've never used grids; I still don't. I never studied or learned about them, and when I did, I saw no reason to use them.

David Carson

Carson leaves us a lesson about the importance of anti-perfectionism, both in how we relate to the world to find our models and in how we create our reality, which David hopes will be in the image and likeness of the subject who scrutinizes it to shape it.


Poster for lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Design department of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts


All the pictures are courtesy of David Carson Studio
Instagram: @davidcarsondesigner